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Bostock v. Clayton County: Meet the Plaintiffs

In Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court held that Title VII protects employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Meet the plaintiffs whose federal cases led to this landmark decision.


Donald Zarda was working as a skydiving instructor in 2010 before he was fired after mentioning that he was gay—in an effort to make a female student more comfortable with the close contact of a tandem jump. Mr. Zarda then filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC ("Equal Employment Opportunity Commission") and a lawsuit in federal court alleging sex stereotyping in violation of Title VII and sexual orientation discrimination in violation of New York Law. 


District Court:

The district court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment on Zarda's discrimination claim, citing Second Circuit precedent holding that discrimination claims based on sexual orientation were not protected by Title VII. The state law discrimination claim went to trial and was also found in favor of the defendant.

Second Circuit Court of Appeals:

Zarda v. Altitude Express, (2d Cir. 2017)

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals declined to reconsider its precedent that sexual orientation did not fall under Title VII's protections against discrimination on the basis of sex because the three-judge panel lacked the authority to overturn Circuit precedent. The district court's ruling was affirmed.

Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc. (2d Cir. 2018)

The Second Circuit reconsidered in 2018 in light of new arguments for discrimination based on sexual orientation being prohibited by Title VII that had not been made in previous cases as well as other circuits debating this issue. The court decided to overturn the previous ruling and held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited under Title VII. The previous judgment of Zarda's Title VII claim was therefore vacated and remanded. 

The Supreme Court then reviewed this interpretation of Title VII in Bostock v. Clayton County (2020). 


Supreme Court Ruling:

The Supreme Court affirmed the Second Circuit's ruling and held that discrimination based on sexual orientation was prohibited under Title VII. It ruled that in such cases, sex was a "But For" cause of the discrimination, and therefore it was impermissible. The Court illustrated this by comparing two hypothetical employees, who were exactly the same except for their sex. If both employees were attracted to men, to fire the gay man would constitute discrimination on the basis of sex. 


Mr. Zarda passed away in 2014 due to a BASE jumping incident, but his loved ones continued his case in the hopes of protecting future LGBTQ+ individuals from the discrimination that he had faced. His sister, Melissa Zarda, published an article in 2019 detailing the decision to fight on his behalf titled: "My Brother Was Fired After Revealing He Was Gay. Now I'm Continuing His Fight at the Supreme Court". Furthermore, his mother gave an interview with the New York Post in 2020, reacting to the hard-fought victory of Bostock.